Supporting Student Veterans

Conference examines range of issues concerning veterans’ integration in higher education.

October 26, 2009
By Menachem Wecker

After enduring danger on the battlefield, many veterans find another perilous road facing them when they return home: acclimating to civilian life, particularly on college campuses.

Speakers at the daylong symposium “Welcome Home to Washington: Fostering Higher Education Success for Veterans and their Families” on Oct. 23 addressed this transition as well as a host of other issues facing veterans adjusting to life post-combat.

“We can all agree that when veterans come home they deserve the best things society has to offer,” said Tammy Duckworth, GW alumna and assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, in her address at GW’s Marvin Center. Ms. Duckworth is a former Army pilot, who lost both her legs when her helicopter was shot down in Iraq. She was recently awarded GW’s first Colin Powell Public Service Award.

But though they deserve the best, Ms. Duckworth said, many veterans feel isolated and unable to replicate the military’s “close-knit family” after they complete their service. Some have to field questions about how many people they killed, “like it’s a score on a video game,” she said. “The right question is ‘How can I help you pursue your dreams because you have helped defend the American dream?’”

Ms. Duckworth’s address was just one of dozens of symposium events, including sessions on the psychology of post traumatic stress disorder, understanding loss and the journey through grief and best practices in coordinating student veteran outreach. The event was sponsored by the Association on Higher Education and Disability, Capital Area Association on Higher Education and Disability and 18 different GW offices and schools.

“We were extremely pleased with the important dialogue on enhancing veterans’ and their families’ higher education experiences,” says Andy Sonn, director of Student and Academic Support Services customer service initiatives, who served as symposium co-chair along with Christy Willis, director of Disability Support Services.

Mr. Sonn cited addresses from Ms. Duckworth; Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education; Milton Greenberg, a WWII veteran and professor emeritus at American University; and Bonnie Carroll, founder and CEO of Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors as particular highlights.

“Our hope is this dialogue is the beginning of a collaboration among higher education researchers and practitioners, public officials and veterans and their families on how to ease the transition from military life to life in the classroom,” he says.

One of the highlights of the day was a panel of student veterans moderated by Dick Golden, special assistant for broadcast operations and University events. GW senior Brian Hawthorne, a veteran of the Iraq war, told the audience how people came up to his parents at his high school graduation – which he missed to attend basic training – and told them they were so sorry for their loss, as if his joining the military was some sort of death.

At GW, Mr. Hawthorne found a voice for himself and GW Veterans, the group he founded. “GW has done something that a lot of other schools have not done,” he said. “It invited students to the table. GW has really led the way.”

“This campus is welcoming veterans back home,” echoed Paul Tschudi, assistant professor of medicine and health sciences, and co-director of GW’s certificate program in grief, loss and life transition, who also sat on the panel.

Mr. Tschudi said it took him and his fellow Vietnam veterans two decades to be accepted when they returned home, and he spent more than seven years working up the nerve to apply to college because of his concerns about anti-war sentiments on campuses.

Years later when he visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and saw fellow veterans still crying so many years after the war he realized that he could use his experience to help veterans through counseling.

“I was 19 when I went into the service, and when I came out I was 50,” he said, noting that he only served for 15 months.

Michelle Miller, who served in the Coast Guard in a variety of roles, from counter narcotics on the South American border to post-Katrina aid in New Orleans, discussed some of the difficulties of arriving at GW to study medicine as a 27-year-old, when her peers were mostly five years younger and had far less world experience. “Sometimes it’s hard for me to explain to them that there’s a larger picture,” she said. “People don’t realize how fortunate they are.”

Daniel Schweizer, a second-year graduate student at GW studying forensic sciences who has served in Kuwait, Bosnia and Korea, received an acceptance letter to GW while he was serving in Iraq. He also learned that he was being considered for a law enforcement job that he craved. Mr. Schweizer chose GW, but he told the audience that he was so incredulous when someone told him in Iraq about the new G.I. Bill that he called the person a liar.

Of course, he later learned that his friend had not been a liar, and in fact GW was one of the first universities to adopt the G.I. Bill.

“Here at GW, you’ve done amazing things,” Ms. Duckworth said in her address. “I thank you for your leadership, because I think a lot of other schools stepped up when they heard GW was doing it.”